Mary Renault (1905 – 1983) who adopted this pseudonym for writing, was born Mary Challans and was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander.
She was born at Dacre Lodge, 49 Plashet Road, Forest Gate, Essex, (now Greater London). She was educated at St Hugh's College, Oxford, then an all-women's college, receiving a degree in English in 1928. In 1933, she began training as a nurse at Oxford's Radcliffe Infirmary. During her training, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a life-long romantic relationship.
She worked as a nurse while beginning a writing career, treating Dunkirk evacuees at the Winford Emergency Hospital in Bristol, and working in Radcliffe Infirmary's brain surgery ward until 1945. She published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939; it had a contemporary setting, like her other early novels, which novelist Linda Proud described as "a strange combination of Platonism and hospital romance".
In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won a MGM prize, she and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There, according to Proud, they found a community of gay expatriates who had "escaped the repressive attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain for the comparatively liberal atmosphere of Durban.... Mary and Julie found themselves able to set up home together in this new land without causing the outrage they had sometimes provoked at home." (Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, participating in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.)
Mary Renault and Julie Mullard had been thinking of going to live abroad for sometime, the MGM prize provided the necessary finance. On a cold winter's day with a single gas ring on the oven as their only source of heat they read in The Times of a ship, the Cairo, going to South Africa and impulsively decided to purchase tickets.
Travelling the East African coast route aboard the Cairo they befriended two actors, Peter Albrecht (aka Peter Arne) and Jack Corke. After a visit to relatives in Rhodesia Renault and Mullard arrived in South Africa in May 1948, just after the victory of the National Party in the 1948 elections. They headed for Durban where they met up as planned with Albrecht and Corke and together formed a company to build homes for UK immigrants buying three plots in Durban North as well as a nearby house where they could live and run the building operations. However, thanks to Albrecht and Corke, things quickly turned chaotic. Six months later one house was still unfinished and the other two barely started.
Meanwhile Renault had met people associated with the SABC radio drama unit that had been set up by Cedric Messina, who along with several other SABC drama people, such as Dennis Folbigge, lived as a permanent resident at the Connaught Hotel. Messina went on to a successful career as a BBC producer and when he left for the UK his ailing mother came to live with Renault and Mullard. As a mark of gratitude he asked Renault to write a radio play. She obliged with a revisionist retelling of the story of the mutiny on the Bounty sympathetic to Captain Bligh. She later also wrote The Song of Troy, a version of the Iliad, for the SABC.
Renault was featured in a Daily News profile on 12 May 1949:
Living shyly in Durban is a young woman novelist who two years ago won R25 000 as the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer award for the best novel of the year - and had R20 000 of it taken from her in supertax by the British Government.
Her pen name is Mary Renault. She flatly refuses to disclose her real name for publication, and when she talked for Talk, she gave the very first Press interview of her life - an astonishing thing in a novelist who has picked one of the richest plums the world has ever offered writers.
It was only after lengthy persuasion that Mary allowed the taking of a photograph.
And she has been living in Durban almost a year, known to few people as an authoress.
She is philosophic
Mary is tall, blue eyed and charming, and his little to say about her prize-winning book, Return to Night, which was selected from several hundred submitted by writers in all parts of the world.
MGM have temporarily shelved the story - because they consider it "a bit complicated for the screen". This spring Longmans, Green will publish her latest work, North Face. She finished this shortly before she left England, and has already had it published in America.
Since her arrival in the Union she has been collaborating with a friend, Peter Albrecht, a South African with London stage experience, in writing a play, provisionally titled Dark Freedom. He wrote the plot - the effect on a family of the return after 15 years of the father, a criminal lunatic - and she wrote the dialogue. It is hoped to produce this play at the Journey's End Shellhole some time in August.
Relationships with Albrecht and Corke became increasingly fraught and following a car accident Renault and Mullard found refuge among friends in the Connaught. They subsequently took legal action to get the two men out of their lives. They now owned the three properties and decided to live in one and let the others. The house where they lived is thought to be on Beachway or Fairway in Durban North.
The couple also travelled around South Africa -- through Natal, the Eastern Transvaal and the Cape, which, according to Renault's biographer David Sweetman she loved on sight "and would have moved had she not been tied to the unsold houses."
By now the MGM prize money had run out and both women needed to earn a living. Mullard became a nurse at King George V Hospital, eventually became a deputy matron. She would later be involved in resisting the segregation of patients and nurses according to colour.
Renault turned to her pen. The result, The Charioteer, the story of war hero Laurie Odell and his love for a pacifist. "To many, The Charioteer, is the best British novel to come out of World War II," says Sweetman. "To others its significance lies in its position as one of a tiny group of important books which take homsoexual love as their subject. In that regard, the novel was also a reflection of her new life in Durban."
"The Charioteer follows its central character, Laurie Odell, from childhood through his schooldays to young manhood in a way so sympathetically and roundly portrayed that the book becomes not only a moral exemplar for homosexuals, but also a counterblast to the wave of homophobic prejudice which charactised the early 1950s in Britian and America."
In 1950 both women became South African citizens. The political situation in their new home could not be ignored. "Unlike those authors who had been born and brought up in South Africa, Mary felt too much the outsider to write directly about the country," says Sweetman. "Its problems were too new for her to consider fictionalising them."
Reanult resolved the dilemma by writing a historical novel "because she believed that there was a telling parallel between the crisis in South Africa and events in fifth-century Athens," says Sweetman. This was the period from 415 BC when Athenian democracy was restored after the tyranny of the Thirty -- just before the trial and death of Socrates.
Renault scrupulously researched the period. "Durban's city librarians, unused to such serious research, were scant help and in the end she turned to Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford. Orders were dispatched to England, and parcels of archaeological records, works of history, guide books, books on pottery and sculpture, volume upon volume, began to fill her study in Durban. It took two years, from 1952 to 1954 to complete the research."
The book, The Last of the Wine, took the form of a memoir written by Alexias, a fictional Athenian gentleman whose personal story is woven into the historical events that comprise the plot. When the novel was nearing completion Renault, together with Mullard, visited Greece to make sure her descriptions of landscape and architecture were accurate. They visited mainland Greece and the islands, including Crete, Mykonos and Delos.
The Last of the Wine was published 1956. Reanult's research in Greece would also provide the inspiration for The King Must Die, a reworking of the story of Theseus published in 1958.
The same year the second of the three houses was sold and they moved into the final house. Around this time Mullard's relations with the nursing authorities resulted in a board of inquiry being convened to look into her activities. It found she had done nothing wrong but she was told to stay away from wards that had black patients and was effectively confined to her office. In 1959 they decided to leave for Cape Town where they had long desired to live.
Her subsequent historical novels were all set in ancient Greece, including a pair of novels about the mythological hero Theseus, and a trilogy about the career of Alexander the Great. Although not a classicist by training, she was admired in her day for her scrupulous recreations of the Greek world. Some of the history presented in her fiction (and in her nonfiction work, The Nature of Alexander) has been called into question: her novels about Theseus rely on the controversial theories of Robert Graves, and her portrait of Alexander has been criticized as uncritical and romanticized. Renault often defends her interpretation of the available sources in author's notes attached to her books, and even her critics generally credit her with providing a vivid portrait of life in ancient Greece. Her narrative style combines evocative imagery with a perceptive understanding of personalities and motivations.
On April 18, 2006, UK, BBC 4 aired a one hour documentary, Mary Renault – Love and War in Ancient Greece, with this description: A profile of the novelist whose books on ancient Greece convincingly brought the world of Plato and Socrates back to life. Sue MacGregor and Oliver Stone are among the contributors to this film examining how Mary Renault's popular novels set in ancient Greece inspired a new generation of readers in the 1950s.
Mary Renault died at Cape Town, Union of South Africa, on 13 December 1983.
1939. Purposes of Love (US title: Promise of Love). London: Longmans Green & Co.
1940. Kind Are Her Answers. London: Longmans Green & Co. New York: VIRAGO.
1943. The Friendly Young Ladies (US title: The Middle Mist). New York: W. Morrow and Company.
1947. Return to Night. New York: W. Morrow and Company.
1948. The North Face. London: Longmans Green & Co.
1953. The Charioteer. London: Longmans Green & Co.
1956. The Last of the Wine. London: Longmans Green & Co.
1958. The King Must Die. New York: Random House.
1962. The Bull from the Sea. London: Longmans Green & Co.
1966. The Mask of Apollo. New York: Pantheon Books.
1969. Fire from Heaven. New York: Pantheon Books.
1972. The Persian Boy. New York: Pantheon Books.
1978. The Praise Singer. New York: Pantheon Books.
1981. Funeral Games. New York: Pantheon Books.
1975. The Nature of Alexander. New York: Pantheon Books.
1964. Lion in the Gateway: The Heroic Battles of the Greeks and Persians at Marathon, Salamis, and Thermopylae. New York: Harper & Row.
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea have been adapted as an 11-part BBC Radio 4 serial entitled The King Must Die.
* With acknowledgements to Mary Renault by David Sweetman published by Harcourt Brace and Company (1993)